September 12, 2018

Sermon: Rosh Hashana 5779 (2018) – Standing on a Wire

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Picture this.

It’s a muggy morning. A group of us, all members of the education staff – tzevet hinuch in camp lingo – come together to take on the high wire challenge course, known at Ramah as the Etgar. I’m the lone male in our cohort, and four of the seven women are Israeli staffers in their early to mid-20s. You’ll see why that matters in a minute. To participate you have to wear a helmet and a secure harness, the latter of which insures – or so say the Etgar staff – that you can’t fall off. Dangling in mid-air is possible; falling is not.

After receiving our instructions we climb up to the challenge course’s second level, approximately 45 feet above the ground. Looking down is not recommended. Setting one’s sights up and across are far better alternatives. Our first task is to travel together walking on half inch thick cables, able to grab onto six foot long pillars which are also suspended in the air, along the way. Working together is the only way across and most of our conversation ends up happening in Hebrew. My fellow teachers panic in Hebrew, they describe their fears in Hebrew, they yell and scream at one another in Hebrew. Slowly, we begin to cross. I’m the last of our group to step out onto the cable, and I’m the first – and on this day the only – of our group to lose footing and to fall off the cable. Somehow, I remain calm; at least outwardly so. With a little help from my friends, I manage to get back on, and with a whole bunch of sweat and cursing – I learned a few new words that morning! – we make it to the Etgar’s middle platform.

The second element involves cable and thick rope. Again we have to work together to stay balanced and to continue to move to the other side. Less panicky now, and with less colorful language, we inch our way across and triumphantly gather on the course’s final platform. Remember that we’re still 45 feet above ground and we have to get back down. After all, it’s nearly lunchtime! Descent – with a fair bit of dissent thrown in – happens courtesy of a zip line which ends in a nice soft pile of wood chips directly in front of my cabin. All you have to do is jump off of the 45 foot high platform and then let go. No problem. By the way, I have photos and video clips to prove all of this! By now, a steady rain is falling, so there’s no more putting it off. With a gentle, but firm, nudge from a member of the Etgar staff, I jump, let go, shriek, land, and fall directly on my rear. What a blast! It was, hands down (or should I say, rear end down?), the best hour of my summer.

There’s a lot to be learned from the Etgar. For starters, it takes a village. The only way for any one of us to get across was for all eight of us to get there. And we did it by continually communicating and learning from and about one another. And one lesson more – stepping outside of one’s comfort zone is a good and valuable thing. Standing on a wire 45 feet in the air is my metaphor. It was way, way outside my comfort zone.

We’re in it together; we need, really need, to talk to one another; and to make it work we need to step out of our self defined boxes and find ways to connect. There’s a lot to learn, and a lot to be gained, from making the effort.

A couple of days before conquering the Etgar, I paid a visit to Liberty, NY, which is my mother’s home town. My grandparents lived at 456 N Main St (you really can’t make this stuff up!) for half a century, and August 1st would have been my bubbeh’s 107th birthday. My chosen project on my day off from camp was to deliver flowers to my grandmother’s house in honor of her birthday. Today, Bub and Zayd’s house is a state owned group home for developmentally disabled adult women. It might be the best kept house in the whole town. Liberty has fallen on hard times in recent decades. Were it not for my family history, it’s a place I’d never choose to visit. Walking up and down Main St. was outside of my comfort zone. And meeting some of the residents and staff of my grandparents’ house turned out to be an extraordinary blessing. Stretching outside of my normal box paid off.

Thirty miles up the road from Liberty lies another Catskills town that has seen better days. Hancock NY, the nearest town to camp, is where L (not her real name!), a long time member of Ramah’s housekeeping staff, went to high school. L is a character and she loves razzing me and other long time camp staffers. One morning I brought my guitar with me to class, so that I could play a few things for my students. L came by on her golf cart and stopped to listen a little. And then, she shared with us that she played the accordion, loved all kinds of music (except opera and jazz), and that when she got to Hancock High, the music teacher wouldn’t give her lessons because she was self taught and had some habits and techniques that the teacher found unacceptable. One thing led to another and before long my students had gotten a complete history lesson about the early settlers of Wayne County, PA. from a pretty unlikely source.

My summer meanderings got me thinking about my comfort zone – things like NPR and the fairly narrow collection of sources that populate my phone’s newsfeed. The truth of the matter is that I spend most of my time seeing, hearing, reading, viewing from a very particular perspective, that of people a whole lot like me. I’m not alone. Listening to All Things Considered on August 23rd I learned that the news coverage on that particular day – the day of Paul Manafort’s conviction and of Michael Cohen’s in court plea arrangement – revealed the existence of two distinct sets of facts. Jason Schwartz, a reporter for Politico, articulated the phenomenon well. “Flipping between Fox News and CNN and MSNBC, you’d think you’re living in two different countries. The set of facts as they’re presented, the reality presented rather, is just totally different.”

A day later, a PEW study was released – very much in my comfort zone, by the way – that suggested that we actually don’t agree on what is and isn’t a fact. “Nearly eight-in-ten Americans say that when it comes to important issues facing the country, most Republican and Democratic voters not only disagree over plans and policies, but also cannot agree on basic facts. Ironically, Republicans and Democrats do agree that partisan disagreements extend to the basic facts of issues…About eight-in-ten Republicans and Republican-leaning independents (81%) say Republican and Democratic voters disagree on basic facts of issues. A similar – albeit slightly smaller – share of Democrats and Democratic-leaning independents (76%) say the same. Just 18% of Republicans and 23% of Democrats say that voters of the two parties can agree on basic facts even if they disagree over policies and plans.” There really are ‘alternative’ facts (or multiple sets of facts). At least we’re able to agree that we disagree. Perhaps that’s a worthwhile opening!

Into that opening, I’d like to inject a core underlying principle of Judaism’s Mussar tradition. Mussar is a path of introspection and self examination and evaluation that aims to help us as individuals ‘work on’ our character traits. In the world of general philosophy, what Jews call Mussar is known as ‘virtue ethics.’ Aristotle is one of that tradition’s founding figures. In Jewish thought, Pirkei Avot, the ‘Wisdom of the Sages’, is one of the foundational texts of Mussar.

Who is wise? asks Ben Zoma in Pirkei Avot. His answer? The one who learns from all people. Rabbi Simcha Zissel Ziv of Kelm, one of the founders of the Lithuanian Mussar movement of the 19th century, offers a telling riff on Ben Zoma’s words. “Every person that has a special feeling for a certain endeavor will be extremely sensitive when she sees any little thing having to do with that endeavor. For example: when a tailor meets someone he will immediately look at his clothing; the shoemaker – at the shoes; the milliner – at the hat. A merchant will be very sensitive to words and actions that might impact her merchandise. Another sort of person will not see or hear any of these things – his heart is not given to inquire or investigate these matters as he has no desire for them…”

Wisdom, in Simcha Zissel’s telling, requires curiosity blended with humility. The humility to recognize that what one knows is forever only part of the story, along with the curiosity to inquire, to discover, to learn more. In Mussar-speak, this quality, or Middah, is called hit’lamdut which means something like a continual desire and willingness to learn from all experiences and from all people.

Rav Simcha Zissel hones in on a prevalent reality: we see what we already know; we hear what’s already familiar, we sing what’s already comfortable. His teaching means to encourage us to consider what it might look/feel/sound/smell like if we stepped outside of our zones of comfort and familiarity? Alon Goshen-Gotstein, one of Israel’s leading lights in the world of inter-religious dialogue and encounter, offers up a tantalizing piece of practice for us to consider. Arguing that Rosh Hashanah is really about the fate of the world, far more than it is about our individual soul work, Goshen-Gotstein suggests that we take this day, this moment, to pray for a world leader. And he has a particular list of leaders in mind, the very mention of whom drags me well outside of my comfort zone. So try this today and over the coming week. Say a prayer for Rodrigo Duterte, or for Kim Jong-Un, or for Vladimir Putin. Quite a challenge, no?

My summer began on a warm evening in June, seated in the last row of the Wells Fargo Center. At center stage, directly across the arena from Nomi and me stood a man with a guitar. The familiar opening notes elicited a roar from the crowd, and all 20,000 of us sang along. The fifty plus year old words felt as if they could have been written yesterday. Indeed, when he first sang them, the singer was very young. This was the encore of his farewell performance. Like us, you know them by heart…

“And in the naked light I saw, ten thousand people maybe more. People talking without speaking. People hearing without listening. People writing songs that voices never shared. And no one dared disturb the sound of silence.”

I’m really not sure what Paul Simon was thinking about when he wrote and first sang those words in 1964. But I have a pretty good idea of some of the current realities to which his iconic lines might apply. So let’s unpack his words a bit.

How does one talk and at the same time fail to speak?

How does one hear and at the same time fail to listen?

And, at the risk of tinkering with a classic, I’d even add a clause, a whole category, to Mr. Simon’s list. Is it possible for people to look without seeing?

The arc of our Rosh Hashanah tefillah serves as an ongoing invitation to us to listen, and to look, and to speak. In this morning’s Torah reading, God urges Abraham to listen, to really hear, his wife Sarah – sh’ma b’kola. A few lines later God invites Hagar to lift up her eyes so that she might actually see the well of water that has been in front of her the entire time. And a sentence after that, the Torah reports that God hears Ishmael, ba’asher hu sham, exactly and precisely where he is at that moment. This morning’s haftarah features Hannah whose earnest plea and prayer goes unheard by Eli the priest; he recognizes that Hannah is speaking, but he doesn’t really listen or hear. And finally, toward the end of our tefillah we’ll join in the special blessing for the shofarot section of Musaf, praising God as the One who – shome’a kol t’ruat ‘amo yisrael b’rahamim! – hears the splintered cries of the people of Israel with compassion.

What all of those moments have in common is that they stir up a measure of un-ease; they push the characters in the stories beyond their familiar spaces and places, and, in turn they push us beyond our zones of comfort as well. The liturgy of this day beckons us to greater curiosity and openness to discovery, to an abiding spirit of inquiry, to an unexpected level of comfort with uncertainty, and, most importantly, to step out of our comfortable and familiar boxes and to risk something different and new.

An old Jewish practice involves identifying a Biblical verse or phrase whose gematria – whose letters’ number value – adds up to the current year’s number. Annually, my teacher and friend Daniel Matt collects such verses and I’m privileged to be on his email list each year. Two of the Bible’s phrases that add up to 779 via gematria beautifully point toward hitlamdut – that mix of curiosity, humility, and desire to learn.

The poet of Psalm 25 calls out to God asking אֹ֖רְחוֹתֶ֣יךָ לַמְּדֵֽנִי – teach me Your path! ‘Teach me’ writes on medieval commentator, ‘so that I might actually know.’ And the author of Psalm 119 asks of God to ‘give me understanding that I may learn Your mitzvot’ – הֲ֝בִינֵ֗נִי וְאֶלְמְדָ֥ה מִצְוֹתֶֽיךָ. The Midrash likens that verse to a wine barrel which one treats with pitch before pouring in the wine. The pitch is ‘understanding’ – an openness to the world around us and a humble desire to learn from all things and all people – while the wine is ‘learning itself’ or talmud. Applying pitch is the dirty and hard work; well outside of most comfort zones. The wine is the payoff. Much like falling off the half inch thick cable in order to be able to land, joyfully, on one’s rear end an hour later. Take the risk; it’s worth it.

L’shana tova tikateivu v’teihateimu – May we all be inscribed and sealed for a sweet, healthy, and learning-filled new year.

2018-09-15T18:26:20+00:00|

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